It’s NOT “Belgian” or Even “Belgian-Style”

Hey, you! Over there, the brewer or beer sommelier or certified cicerone or just plain beer drinker. You know that beer you’re brewing/serving/drinking, the one produced in the USA but fermented with a yeast which, many years ago, had its origins in Belgium. There is something you need to know about it, so pay very close attention.

It is NOT Belgian.

Belgian beer is NOT beer fermented with Wyeast #1214 or White Labs WLP550. It is NOT beer affected by Brettanomyces or any odd variety of yeast or bacteria. It is NOT wheat beer spiced with coriander and orange peel. And it is NOT beer fermented with cherries or dosed with cherry juice.

Belgian beer is beer that is brewed and fermented in Belgium. Period.

Okay, so there’s that dealt with, now let’s move on to “Belgian-style.” There IS one sort of beer that may be properly termed “Belgian-style” and that is a wheat beer brewed with a significant portion of unmalted wheat and flavoured with coriander and orange peel. You may also call it a wit or a white beer or a bière blanche, if you wish. But if you’re going to use “Belgian-style” please be sure to include the “style” part – see above – and follow it with “wheat beer.”

As for all other beers brewed and fermented outside of Belgium, regardless of what they contain or how they have been fermented or conditioned, they are NOT “Belgian-style.” They may be “abbey-style” or “Belgian-inspired” but not “Belgian-style.” Here’s why.

Although a small country of 11 or so million people, Belgium is nothing if not a diverse brewing nation. It has been said, and not without some accuracy, that Belgian beers have no style, since each brewer crafts their brands in their own particular style or styles. If you really tried to sort it through, as my colleague Tim Webb does in his Good Beer Guide to Belgium, you can probably whittle it down to 30 or 35 very broadly defined sorts of ale and lager – with very few of the latter – but none of those can or should be solely defined as being of “Belgian-style.”

“Belgian,” as I recently noted on Facebook, is not so much a style as it is a huge mix of idiosyncratic brewing philosophies. (Sorry to quote myself, but I really like that line.) To describe a beer not brewed in Belgium as “Belgian” or “Belgian-style” is to do a great disservice to the country’s long brewing traditions and current diversity, not to mention the beer, the brewer and the drinker, the last because it necessitates an assumption that said individual is geographically ignorant.

So, to recap, Belgian beer is beer brewed in Belgium, and “Belgian-style” is a largely meaningless and belittling adjective. Now, get back to your beer.

15 Replies to “It’s NOT “Belgian” or Even “Belgian-Style””

  1. Thank you!! I have been trying to make much this same this point with beer judges and others for years (not to mention the homebrewers who had a beer go, umm, not quite as expected, and decide they ought to enter it in competitionn as a “Belgian” and then complain about the beer not scoring well. Now [comma optional] go have a beer!

  2. Hi Stephen
    I’m afraid the TTB’s default position for label approval is Belgian-style, unless it’s a Belgian import. Only then can it legally say Belgian. Belgian-style is what we use on Ommegang labels when we use anything that says Belgium. TTB might, maybe, possibly, but not for sure, go for Belgian-inspired. But once they have established a ruling it’s almighty hard to get it changed. Would have to try it out on a new label.

    Keep stirring the tun!

    Larry Bennett Brewery Ommegang

  3. Well, here in Brasil not only there is a habit of speaking of “styles”, but beer sommeliers go over and over and over about “Belgian school”, “German school”, “British school” (don’t ask them to define the “schools”, the definitions are contradictory and vague), as if there was some sort of central teaching … and shame on you if you try to argue, as I did.

  4. Thanks for the article. It will never end. Is Mercedes a German car?
    Made in Germany? BMW exactly the same even made in the USA.
    And what for Heineken? “Imported in the USA” yes; but brewed in more than 60 countries in the world.

    Theo Vervloet. Belgium.

  5. I had one of those yesterday at a beer festival. How about ‘Brewed in the forlorn hope of being good enough to be judged as a Belgian-like ale’ ? Might not be very catchy but at least it would be pretty accurate!

  6. For me Belgian beer is beer brewed in Belgium as German beer is brewed in Germany. But style is something different. There so many different Belgian styles that I’m not sure which one should be referred as the “Belgian style”.

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